Investigations into displays are held in high esteem these days. Displays enable us to decipher the different conditions in conveying something to someone, between an object and its recipient, between subject and social domain. Revealing something about contemporary art taste, displays also focus outward; they pertain to institutions as well as to the aesthetic medium. Displays are indicators; they strive for increased visibility. Klaus Merkel’s (born 1953) displays in and for painting, indeed even as painting, are backed up by a cache of functions, technologies, experiences and knowledge about painting and in dealing with painting.
Over more than twenty years now, the artist has developed—from the plethora of traditional painterly means, especially derived from the colorist spectrum—an emblematic color palette in which black and white represent a significant structural moment. From abstract painting, in the 1980s, a conceptual position evolved that investigates discourse, the apparatus, and different distribution types in light of the medium. Even if, in Merkel’s case, such an aesthetic attitude takes shape as painting after painting, it is not to be confused with such directions that demand-(ed) self-reflection of the medium with its own means. On the contrary, comparable to Art & Language1 painting is a theoretical undertaking that questions itself via its frame, or indeed it follows its perimeters. In doing so, Merkel’s visual essay about representation and its strategies functions via presentational modi. While the artist integrates lectures and performances regarding painting into his work, he also undertakes the visual organization of time structures, as well as primarily (fictitious) simultaneities.
Well over twenty years ago, in 1988, Markus Brüderlin described Merkel’s contemporary paintings—many of which are now part of the Jochen Kienzle Collection—as “fields of action for a practice of dispersal”.2 Brüderlin’s point of reference here was the painter’s approach to building up a certain banality, heterogeneity or flippancy of picture events when faced with the grand metaphysical manifesto of Abstract Art and his attempt to bring back painting to our consciousness as an open aesthetic practice. Even then, dispersal as a technical or compositional momentum surfaced in some pictures, which became primarily a productive and deconstructivist metaphor set against the ideological totalitarianism of US Post-War abstraction and its hegemonic claims on Western culture. On another, no less comprehensive level, was the notorious desire—especially vis-à-vis painting—of most viewers for an arbitrarily transferable yet perpetually original object that should forever be created from point zero. The market and its agents are only too willing to foster such a conservative yearning.
From the perspective of Merkel’s more recent works, the “fields of action for a practice of dispersal” take yet another slant. These newer paintings are stages featuring acts of dispersal that define how we deal with painting or, more generally speaking, with art. For perception’s sake, each work circulates, is ‘dispersed’ and will occasionally be reassembled again, whether virtually or physically: in exhibitions, collections, magazines, catalogues or merely in lists and inventories. Although such practices may be understood as archival storage or collections management, Merkel simultaneously stages this type of gathering as a relationship between protagonists. In its double meaning, the word aufführen (i.e. to stage and to list) functions as a link between what I see as a stage and what I call an archive. The one is dedicated to the performative aspect of showing, the other to the storage. Both shades of meaning merge in the word aufführen. Or, in the words of the specific way of dealing with another medium, the film: “To show is to preserve.”
The storage formats follow specific routines; this aspect is often discounted as formalism when it comes to talking about an artwork—with intrinsic qualities—and especially about painting. Yet, as approached by Merkel, the storage formats are conceived as three-dimensional spatial elements that make up certain orders: Series, piles, plates, clusters, and, in the digital realm: windows that, slightly misaligned, slide over one another. They all possess the format of indicator, and for different purposes are supposed to increase visual presence. Merkel quotes them in the paintings themselves as well as in their installations. Repetition is a fundamental demonstration attribute. On the one hand, repetitions or doublings of stored images—or, more generally speaking, past ones—generate new pictures that look like their pre-figurations in an interesting manner: new cancels old.3 On the other hand, the effective methods of dissemination and reception lead to their re-translation into painting, where they accumulate just as much systematically as subjectively. This state is attained through their repeated display—be it in catalogues or on the web.
Initially, the term display, used internationally today, denoted a monitor screen of any size but also a shop window decoration. For a long time, this phrase has been generally applied to exhibition procedures and aesthetics. Display is a method or a practice as well as its result. The etymology of the English verb to display comes from the Latin displicare, to spread or to unfold. Something with informational or commercial value is spread, is visually presented, shown in terms of its visual value, which is indicated by diverse means. Such surplus production is typical of commodity fetishism, i.e. for the type of Modernity where all comes together: Industry, bourgeosie, and cultural formats such as abstract, or rather non-representational painting, wherein a luxury item like art is treated with special distinction. Since then, art is positioned within its presentation and its framework, despite its programmatic claims to represents only itself. All attempts to prove the opposite and refusals to join this discourse were dominated by ideologies.4 But how is one to imagine commentary painting that does not merely observe, but is critical about art or becomes discursive? It is crucial to note that Merkel contextualizes the mutual transfers between painting and its instruments with exactly this display. The term transfer—beyond its meaning as transference between media—is a term used to describe the creation of awareness in psychoanalysis.5 In this field, it denotes a substantial structure for establishing relationships wherein patterns of affection and wish are transferred onto one or more other humans. We could also speak about projection, another term used in the visual-media realm and in psychoanalysis. There is no doubt that (unconscious) affects and desires play a role in painting as well as in its observation and business surrounding it. In other words: To practice transfer/display is not a mechanical but a highly subjective organization of painting itself that describes the complex interrelationships of the medium, the artist, the utilization system, the viewers—among them the collectors. The interrelationships in Merkel’s paintings are dissolved within them.
- Compare Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art and Painting. Further Essays on Art & Language, Cambridge, Mass. and London 2001 ↩︎
- Markus Brüderlin, Der postmoderne Augenaufschlag und die ästhetische Vernunft. In: Cat. Schlaf der Vernunft, Museum Fridericianum Kassel 1988, 141-172, 168 ↩︎
Translator’s note: Used here in Hegel’s sense, the German word aufheben can also mean to store and to elevate to a higher level; in Hegel’s writings, it is translated with ‘sublation.’
- About commentary painting in general and highly interesting in reference to Klaus Merkel: Hans-Jürgen Hafner, Von verschiedenen Seiten her ansehen: The Most Contemporary Picture Show, Actually. In: The Most Contemporary Picture Show, Actually. René Daniëls, Michael Krebber, Klaus Merkel, Cat. Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Nuremberg 2006, 26-34, on Merkel 31-33 ↩︎
- For another reading of Klaus Merkel’s oeuvre under psychoanalytical considerations see: Hanne Loreck, Die Natur der Malerei. Ein Fall von Perversion - zu Klaus Merkels Malerei. In: Klaus Merkel, Cat. Kunsthalle Luckenwalde, Kunstverein Freiburg i. Br., Kunsthalle ↩︎